Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.
Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!
Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 5:
1) LOS ANGELES RAMS: Get rid of negative run plays.
How did Sean McVay's offense find itself so lost in Week 4's loss to the Buccaneers? Well, the Rams quickly fell behind and relied on Jared Goff's arm to claw their way back into the game. Goff dropped back to throw 70 times, attempting 68 passes for over 500 yards. Perhaps that's great theater if Goff is the captain of your fantasy league team, but it's a bad formula for winning NFL games. The Rams ran all of 11 times in the contest, with Todd Gurley getting two touchdowns in his five carries. The running back's first score was vintage Gurley, as he went 13 yards to pay dirt, trucking the strong safety along the way. The disparity of pass plays (70) vs. designed run plays (11) doesn't tell the full story. Goff threw three interceptions and had the ball punched out of his hand, turning the ball over four times in total, and the Bucs capitalized on each turnover.
Another issue has been the O-line play. Last season, the Rams started the same offensive line combination in all 19 games, including their earned trip to Super Bowl LIII. This season began with the Rams replacing the starting center and left guard with first-time starters, Brian Allen at center and Joseph Noteboom at left guard. Right guard Austin Blythe has missed some time, and as a result, the unit hasn't been cohesive through the first month. Of the 11 run plays in Week 4, four were negative runs. Whether it's McVay or any other play-caller in the league, negative runs are usually followed by a pass play, especially if the negative run is on first down.
The first thing Los Angeles must do is figure out how to prevent negative runs. Gurley and Malcolm Brown have healthy run averages at 4.5 and 4.4 yards per carry, respectively, and are more than capable of having big rushing days when provided the opportunity. But with this struggling offensive line, which went from ranking first in run blocking in 2018 to dead last in 2019, it's time to investigate. On a short week, McVay must get his receivers and tight ends more involved in blocking at the line of scrimmage on run plays. This might be the best option to improve results against the Seahawks and in Week 6. When examining the bigger picture, the Rams' offensive staff needs to determine where the offense is getting caught up and give extra attention to any series that isn't averaging 4 yards per carry.
Los Angeles must have more faith in its rushing attack and become more balanced. That will only happen if issues up front are addressed.
2) CLEVELAND BROWNS: Use Pharaoh Brown more to ignite big plays.
The Cleveland Browns bounced back in a big way from their Week 3 prime-time loss, in which they had four chances to tie the game at the 4-yard line and failed, with a 40-burger in Baltimore last week. The key for Freddie Kitchens and the offense was an unselfish player who goes by the Twitter handle @PharaohsDream. Enter Pharaoh Brown, a jack of all trades who can play everything from fullback to H-back to tight end. In three years as an Oakland Raider and Cleveland Brown, he had his first career touch in last week's win on an 18-yard reception. Brown's greatest asset is as a lead blocker, coming up big at the line of scrimmage to make sure no defender ruined run plays to Nick Chubb. He also excelled in play-action by giving Baker Mayfield more time to find his receivers downfield.
Brown's offensive snaps more than doubled in Week 4 (31) compared to Weeks 2-3 (14 apiece). A majority of Brown's snaps were in the fourth quarter when Cleveland had a two-score lead over Baltimore, but look for Brown to get more playing time going forward, with David Njoku out. When the Browns take the field for another nationally televised game against the undefeated 49ers on Monday, Cleveland must utilize its unselfish hero's abilities to win at the line of scrimmage and help set up big plays in the run and pass games.
3) MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Use crazy-gifted WR duo downfield.
The Vikings went to Soldier field last week, only to be taken behind the proverbial woodshed, where they were robbed of their lunch money, among other items. They are 0-2 on the road, and in both games, their offense was almost nonexistent. In Week 2 vs. the Packers, the Vikings tried to play catch up after falling behind quickly. In Week 4, Minnesota again fell behind 16-0 and was never really in the game. If this trend continues, they won't qualify for the playoffs for a second straight season, making the $84 million guaranteed investment in Kirk Cousins look like a poor decision.
Fortunately, the Vikings have two very valuable assets that have hardly been used a quarter of the way through the season -- receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Pro Bowlers who make up what is considered to be one of the best receiving tandems in the NFL over the past two seasons. It's no wonder that these guys are frustrated. In fact, Diggs confirmed Thursday there's truth to recent speculation that he wants out of Minnesota. In this year's new offense, engineered by Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak, the Vikings are a heavy run-first unit that takes few deep shots. With running back Dalvin Cook getting shut down by the Bears, who took all running lanes away from Cook despite playing withoutAkiem Hicks and Roquan Smith, last week would have been a prime time to get Diggs and Thielen involved. Both receivers can beat almost any cornerback in the NFL -- Thielen beat All-Pro Kyle Fuller deep last week, but Cousins missed the throw -- with a combination of speed, quickness and exceptional route running. Yet, this pair has been vastly underutilized, with 13 receptions apiece and three TDs combined through four games. The run-first mentality is what Mike Zimmer prefers, especially behind a rebuilt offensive line featuring rookie center Garrett Bradbury, but the Vikings should never get too far away from these two talented receivers and the passing game.
When spending time with Thielen during a "Film Sessions" episode recorded at last season's Pro Bowl, he told me his favorite route is the go route, and for good reason. He has great speed, body control and vertical lift, and he usually ends up on the winning end of most 50/50 balls. He needs the chance to showcase his talents. Of quarterbacks who have made four starts this season, only Case Keenum and Jared Goff have fewer deep pass attempts (20-plus air yards) than Cousins, per Next Gen Stats. Minnesota must start mixing in the talents of Diggs and Thielen soon if it wants to compete for the NFC North.